At the South-Western corner of Chaoyang park lies Park Apartments. A compound* like so many others in Beijing - but different. Many of Park Apartments' residents (including myself) chose this compound because of its location and great facilities (which I've described before on my blog) but it turned our that it came with the added bonus of a tight knit community. As residents we come together to lend a helping hand (or a pound of sugar), network, exchange DIY tips, look for playdates for our kids, advertise events, share our frustrations about the somewhat famous Chinese Chabuduo maintenance-style - and last but not least, we party together.
We're lucky to have a bar area in the lobby and we hold regular "come-and-meet your neighbours" potlucks for the grown-ups - but the kids also get their fair share of fun at the annual trick or treating at Halloween and egg hunt at Easter.
The glue that holds our community together is... (you guessed it) WeChat!
I'd like to show you some snippets from our conversations.
* a compound can be anything from a gated community to a high-rise building. Often with a high concentration of expat residents.
As you may know, I don’t go shopping a lot in China. And by that I mean I don’t physically walk into shops (despite having a gazilion shopping malls at my disposal). I’ve told you about my taobao addiction before so I thought you might want to have a look at my latest online purchases. The news is that I am now also using Baopals which is Taobao BUT IN ENGLISH! Absolutely brilliant!
Going back to China after 7 weeks in Europe: What I’m bringing back to China and what I wish I could bring.
A year ago, almost to this date, I told you how I felt about going back to Beijing after a long summer in Europe. Last year, I focused on the emotions - whereas this year, I'll take you right back down to earth and tell you what’s in my suitcase.
The things I have bought in Europe - and the things I wish I could bring back to China.
(Apologies for the layout on mobile phone)
In my suitcase:
What I wish I could bring:
A former runner reports from beyond the finish line: my trip to Hubei with a group of foreign runners
The first weekend of June 2018, I travelled with a group of foreign runners (including my husband) to the Hubei province. Purpose: the 2018 Mountain Marathon Series - Tenglong Cave Cup (a mountain marathon) . I joined for moral support, for a visit to Hubei, for a new experience - and admittedly also for the chance to write a piece about foreign runners and their participation at races and trails here in China.
My reportage from beyond the finish line was published by South China Morning Post last Sunday. https://m.scmp.com/lifestyle/health-wellness/article/2157108/trail-races-remote-parts-china-make-expats-ambassadors
Here are some additional pictures which I hope you'll enjoy.
December 2015: I had left behind my friends, colleagues and life in Belgium to move to China where my husband had been posted. The kids started school 10 days after we arrived. With my husband at work and the kids at school, I was free to explore Beijing – something I had been looking forward to for months. I quickly found a daily rhythm and I thoroughly enjoyed the adventure of living in Asia. But I missed my friends terribly. And that’s how I learnt the first of many valuable lessons in China: without friends, we are nothing.
Even for an extrovert like me, it takes a big, deep breath to walk into a room full of people I don’t know. But whether you’re an expat in China or you’ve just moved to the village down the road in our home country, finding friends tends to be the all-important step that’s required in order to make us thrive - so we have no choice but to get on with it. And get out there.
Here is how I recommend meeting new friends in Beijing – or at least what worked for me:
Hands down the best decision I’ve made in terms on finding friends. It took a couple of school/teacher changes but the bond my classmates and I have is very special. For the purpose of finding friends (and not getting bored out of your mind), I always recommend group classes rather than individual lessons.
Music has always been an important part of my life and I had barely landed in Beijing before I started looking for a musical outlet. I quickly got up on stage at open mic evenings (especially at Paddy O’Shea’s Irish bar) but it took me some time to find a group to join. Thanks to the WeChat group “all the singing ladies”, I came across “Jing Sing”. An a cappella group that sounded like…well, music to my ears. I auditioned in August 2016 and Jing Sing has since become one of the most important things in my life in Beijing - just like some of my best friends in Beijing are from Jing Sing. I love singing and my husband loves running! Soon after we arrived, he joined “Hey Running” and China has taken him to new heights. As an ultra/trail runner, he gets to explore this country with newfound, likeminded friends.
When you’re new to a place, you rely not only on your own proactiveness but also on other people’s friendliness. I was lucky enough to be invited to join several groups shortly after we arrived in Beijing but I am particularly grateful to two groups who took me under their wings. Namely “The Bikers” – a lovely group of expat women and fellow moms whom I met through my kids’ school - and the very active and super nice Italian women’s group.
Did you recognise that phrase from the title song of the Australian sitcom Neighbours? We were lucky to find a fantastic compound in Beijing that not only offers good housing but also a close-knit community. I have made some very good friends at Park Apartments.
If you have kids and they attend an international school in Beijing, chances are that there is a wide array of activities for parents on offer. Whether you become involved on a daily basis, volunteer for events or choose to show up to the occasional coffee morning, you will have plenty of chances to meet other parents and make friends with them.
Due to the language barrier, it is difficult to find Chinese friends unless they speak English – meaning that your potential Chinese friends are likely to be young and with a good understanding of foreign cultures. I appreciate my (few) Chinese friends very much and I want to thank them for letting me bombard them with questions about Chinese culture (and language) and for occasionally letting me use them as sources for my blog posts and articles.
Making friends takes time. But once you make it beyond the small talk at coffee mornings, parties or outings, you will soon find out whom you really click with and whom you have something in common with. I often find comfort in the feeling that we are all in the same boat. Most of the people I meet and interact with in Beijing are foreigners who, like myself, have started from scratch here. Chances are that we have more in common that meets the eye.
In May this year, I turned 43 and my husband had arranged a surprise party for me. As I stood there on a Sanlitun rooftop terrace, grinning from ear to ear, I looked around and realized that a mere 2 ½ years ago, I had no idea that the many friends who were there to celebrate me even existed. Long live changes of scenery and new opportunities. Long live new friendships and the certainty that you’ll keep the old.
When it comes to getting around in Beijing, I find that one tends to become more and more courageous as the months and years go by.
When we were new to the city, hailing a taxi and praying that we’d be able to communicate with the driver, was hard enough. Then our bikes arrived from Europe and we launched ourselves into the madness of Beijing traffic on two wheels. By then, we were still convinced that buying a car was a silly idea - yet in October 2016, the ol’ Volvo became part of our lives.
Transport is not a problem in Beijing. You can always get from A to B quite easily. When we want to avoid traffic, we take the subway. When we want to sit back and relax, we order a Didi (private taxi), biking feels like the most natural way of commuting and when we move as a family - especially outside the city, we take the car. However, in a city of 25 million inhabitants, there are situations where you need to get somewhere quickly and avoid traffic at the same time. Where the subway would seem like the ideal solution, you often have to walk far within the stations to change lines.
So I went and got myself a scooter. Or rather; my husband made the final decision for me and surprised me on my birthday with a brand new Niu. One of China's most popular electric scooter brands.
Here it is. Goes up to 40 K/hour, can drive up to 50 K on a full battery, is completely silent (which can be dangerous as cyclists can't hear me and we share the same bike lane). But all in all an extremely convenient way of getting around Beijing.
(Published by Global Times, Metro Beijing section on 19 April 2018)
What do you do when you have an important decision to make? You may choose to ask your friends and relatives for advice, weigh your options on your own or perhaps make a list of pros and cons. But one Beijing based family took to an untraditional method when it was time for them to decide whether to leave Beijing – and where to.
Victoria and Sam have been in Beijing for 3 years together with their two children aged 8 and 6. In early 2018, they had to decide whether to stay in Beijing, move back to America – or consider a third option. “Identifying your criteria for a happy life is never easy” says Victoria “so we had to think of a way that would allow us to take everything into consideration”. When the family moved to Beijing – their first posting abroad – they thought they would be moving back to New Jersey when the contract ended but as it became clear that there were other options, deciding where to go after Beijing was no longer that easy. When Sam suggested basing their decision on an algorithm, Victoria was slightly sceptical at first but the couple agreed that such a pragmatic approach was worth a try. “We used an excel spreadsheet to write down possible options of where to live and criteria that were important to us. As simple as that” she smiles. They considered the school for their children, family spirituality (the ability to practise their Christian faith), finances, work opportunities, personal safety, health – and finally contact with the middle eastern culture (Sam was born in Egypt and Victoria has Palestinian roots). They looked at options for potential places to live and the places they put on the list were Princeton (New Jersey, US), Bayonne (New Jersey, US), Shanghai, Arab countries, Virginia (US) and finally staying in Beijing.
On a scale from one to five, Beijing scored highest on a number of areas such as family unity (dynamics and quality time), personal safety, finances, career and convenience of life. At the same time, it scored lowest on family spirituality and the contact with the middle eastern culture. Shanghai got the exact same score as Beijing. Although moving to an Arabic country may have brought the family closer to their roots and religion, personal safety as well as finances and career would have been a concern in that part of the world. The family knew the quality of life would be fairly high in both Virginia and Bayonne, New Jersey and although the race between the two locations was close, Bayonne ended up with the highest score. A winner had been found. But home may very well be where the heart is – and not where the spreadsheet says it is. The family has decided to move to Princeton instead. Interestingly enough, Princeton was the family’s base before they moved to China. They are about to move back to the house they own there and in many ways, they will take up where they left off. Victoria and Sam could very well become trendsetters for their out-of-the-box approach but in a time of technology, algorithms and big data, the formula for a happy family life may lay in our gut instinct and our emotional connections after all.
Thank you to our lovely friends and neighbours Victoria and Sam! We will miss you - but see you in Princeton ;-)
Tianjin was on my China bucket list. Not because it's famous for anything - but more because it's a big city that's really close to Beijing. It took me (and my beloved class mates) over 2 years to finally take that 35 minute train ride to Tianjin. We were in for a pleasant surprise.
Before I let the pictures (and the captions) do the talking, here are some facts about Tianjin:
Sources: Chinatoday.com, Wikipedia
Each cup of tea represents an imaginary voyage. - Catherine Douze
I've always said that China is all about seizing opportunities for me - so what do you do when you absolutely love tea and a Chinese tea enthusiast offers to take you to discover the world of tea at the tea market? You say yes thank you!
Around three weeks ago, my great Italian friend Alessia had organised for a group of us to go to a tea market located on the north third ring road. Chinese teacher and tea enthusiast Lucy was going to meet us there. Lucy is a larger than life character. Always super elegant, this time dressed in red from top to toe, speaks perfect English and is extremely knowledgable. Lucy took us to one of the many small tea shops where a lovely young woman was waiting for us. She is the daughter of tea producers from southern China and was proud to let us sample various types of tea - both from the family farm and other producers.
Lucy had prepared a booklet for each of us with basic information about the different types of Chinese tea. We were introduced to green tea, yellow tea, white tea, Wulong tea, black tea (called red tea - hongcha - in Chinese) and dark tea.
Here are a few of the interesting facts we learned:
Shop til you drop
I decided to buy two of the teas we tasted:
Off she goes. I've just said goodbye to our Ayi (househelp). She is going back to the Henan province where her three children live with her parents-in-law. She is ecstatic as she hasn't seen her kids (aged 5, 7 and 18) since the beginning of October. She'll be gone for almost two weeks (needless to say our house will be a mess by the time she gets back) and I wish her a happy new year with a hong bao (red envelope) containing a month's salary. It is "standard procedure" to pay Ayi's double salary for Chinese new year but the twinkle in her eye tells me she never took it for granted.
This year, the Chinese New year's eve falls on the 15th of February (this coming Thursday) . By then, over one billion Chinese will have reached their home towns for what Forbes calls the world's largest human migration. On Thursday, the Chinese will be gathering around the table for a family feast. There will most certainly be 鱼 Yú (fish) 饺子 Jiǎozi (dumplings), 春卷 Chūnjuǎn (spring rolls) 汤圆 Tāngyuán (sweet rice balls) and other dishes that are believed to bring good luck.
Staying in Beijing: don't expect dragons
For our first Chinese new year in 2016, we decided to stay in Beijing. Although we could see and hear fireworks almost non-stop for 10 days, we were somehow disappointed. The city seemed empty (as empty as a city of 25 million people can be) and a far cry from the carnival atmosphere I had somehow expected. There was no drumming in the streets and red dragons were nowhere to be seen. It turns out that dragon dance is not really a Beijing tradition and that the silence was due to said largest human migration. The journey home has begun for most and, already last week, it became difficult to get taxis, many deliveries are postponed until after new year, many shops and restaurants are either operating with new year opening hours or closed (although most shopping malls remain open as normal).
But those who choose a staycation, are still in for a treat - because this is China and it's never boring. Many of the city's parks and temples Temple welcome Beijingers to their temple fairs and that is certainly a fun day out! During the fairs, parks are beautifully decorated and boosting with entertainment, vendors of different kinds, food stalls and also religious rituals.
I'm outta here - popular destinations
Chinese new year is (alongside the national day in October) the busiest period for travelling in China. Popular cities and sights tend to be completely overcrowded hence many foreigners prefer to travel elsewhere for Chinese new year. Admittedly also to escape from the cold weather.
I've asked around and here is where 10 of my Beijing friends are going this new year:
Amy: Sri Lanka
Rose: New Zealand
Can you see a trend? South East Asia is indeed a very popular holiday destination for CNY.
What about us?
This Chinese new year is going to be a special one for the Floris family. Partly because of a very exciting project - partly because - for the first time- we're going our separate ways (thankfully only for 10 days).
My daughter Rebecca and I are flying to Nicaragua tomorrow, Wednesday. Our family has, since 2011, supported the Charity "Carita Feliz" - a centre for Children and youngsters of very little means situated in Granada, Nicaragua. The organisation was founded by my countryman Peder Kolind who sadly passed away in 2015. This will be my third trip to Nicaragua but Rebecca was only 6 years old when she visited the country (where her dear Uncle Diego also happens to live). She is super excited about our trip and has been very active in sourcing donations (both clothes, electronics and money) for the children who are less fortunate than her. I will be posting some reflections from our trip on my website www.lisefloris.com.
As for our dad and brothers, they are off to South Korea for 4 days. They will be staying in Seoul and will also go to visit the border with North Korea.
Exciting times. We're counting our blessings again.
Happy new year and see you in the year of the Dog.